Sunday, January 31, 2010

Review: Left 4 Dead 2

In part 2 of "Gas Bandit's Way-Behind-Schedule" review series, we come to the sequel to one of my hands-down-favorite games of recent years. The original Left 4 Dead is a masterpiece of setting, style, gameplay, character and fun, which I completely flaked out on and only gave a measelly paragraph to describe just over a year ago, when it deserved a glowing review. Now, I take a look at Left 4 Dead 2.

Left 4 Dead 2 was born in a small whirlwind of controversy. There was a badly conceived internet boycott because L4D fans thought that they were being gypped. The original L4D felt a little on the short side, with 4 "movies" that each take about an hour to complete (though with excellent replayability). Expectations had been set (especially by the prolific update precedent set by Team Fortress 2, which continues to receive a meaningful content update every third nanosecond) that to make up for the game's brevity, more updates would be patched in over time. At the time of the controversy, only one such update had occurred, adding the new "survival" game mode (however, close to L4D2's launch, a second update did materialize with a 5th "movie" to play). Also, during this time Australia was really starting to ramp up its "ban everything that's fun" phase (of which they're still in the throes), and declared a ban on L4D2, leading the developers to have to make a special "sissy" version so the delicate flowers of Australia would not be crushed by the very same visual experience you get from a PG-13 movie these days. Throw in a few hurried code patches week of release to fix some crippling glitches.

Well, that's all very informative, I'm sure you're saying, but what about the game itself?

Let me get this out of the way first, because I'm going to be harping on some shortcomings alot after this, and I don't want to lead you the wrong way: L4D2 is a good game. Ok? It's a good game. But... you remember that there have been some ill-advised attempts to relaunch certain intellectual properties as an "EXTREME!" version? Extreme ghostbusters, extreme looney tunes, extreme this, that, and the other? It feels a little bit like what they're trying to do here.

More blood, more zombies, more boss zombies, WAY more blood, more weapons, more danger, more panic events... everything's just trying SO hard to be cranked to 11. "THIS AIN'T YER DADDY'S LEFT 4 DEAD" screams L4D2, "I'm on SUPER EXTREME ELECTRIC STEROIDS!" Never mind that a lot of the new weapons seem entirely rendundant - for example, I found practically no functional difference between the combat shotgun and the chrome autoshotgun, or between the uzi and the autopistol. The differences seemed entirely cosmetic, which I guess can appeal to some people, but it just seems to be a missed opportunity here. Also, you're now given more "fallback" weapon choices.. there's the old dual pistols everybody knows and loves, or you can swap them in for a single desert eagle or a melee weapon.

The big pistol... how can I put this? Something's wrong with it... the model for it, the place in front of the camera where the model is placed... just, it feels artificial. Maybe it's because it feels like your character is holding the pistol level with his or her eyebrows, or something like that. It just seemed a little distracting to me, but it does punch through zombies better than dual pistols, though it holds fewer rounds. But just try a melee weapon and you'll find yourself a convert. It's nice to be able to gun from a distance with no ammo concerns, sure, but a good melee weapon will turn you into some kind of zombie-chopping berzerker ninja juggernaut. There have been times in every L4D player's life where he got surrounded on all sides by a dozen zombies clawing at him and the pistols, or even regular weapons, just couldn't cut the mustard. However, a katana or bat or even a sturdy electric guitar will grant you your freedom if wielded with even mediocre skill. With melee weapon in hand, I managed to fight my way through oncoming hordes of common zombies to an objective (more on that later), and if you do it right, you can even take out a Tank zombie in about 6 seconds with the proper melee weapon (the nightstick, if you're wondering).

So that's got some things to the plus, but there's a lot more that L4D2 seems to be doing "just to be different." Of course there's the whole "southern" feel to every level, but it manages to pull that off pretty well. I'm not so sure about most of the levels being set during the day, though. It takes something from the experience... in L4D1, it being dark was part of what built the tension, whereas in daylight's unlimited visibility, they're forced to increase the number and difficulty of the zombies to compensate for the fact that most of the time you'll see them coming hundreds of feet away. They have to give you more zombies to shoot and more bosses to toss you about so that your increased visibility doesn't make the game a turkey shoot, headshotting every zombie with a sniper rifle before you even get close enough to smell them.

This dovetails nicely into my next item - the difficulty. Part of the new EXTREME L4D is that everything is more and harder. Zombies? More and harder. Bosses? More and harder. Panic events? More and harder. Climax events? More and harder. Also, they give you the hardest "movie" first, for some reason. There was a point in the third stage of the first movie (on NORMAL difficulty, mind you) that in the middle of a panic event, the game decided to spawn two tanks, a boomer, a jockey AND a smoker on me AT ONCE. All while the normal zombies were swarming over us like a kicked beehive. Also, where the first game mostly had "push this button and defend it until it's done doing its thing" events, L4D2 favors "push this button which starts a neverending panic event with lots of bosses, and run THROUGH them to push this other button a long way away" events. Anyone can tell you it's much easier to fight a numerically superior horde from an entrenched position of tactical superiority, and much harder to have to move through said horde without any of the advantages that setting up a defensible position grants. It didn't take long for me to decide that "normal" was too frustrating, and I found that "easy" difficulty is actually pretty close to what L4D1 was on "normal." It just confuses me when, why there were already a "hard" and "expert" difficulty level in L4D1, they had to go and bump every level up a difficulty factor AND throw in a new optional "realism" game mode to make it even harder. Are there really people who are so very damn Rambo that they needed the difficulty set 5 orders of magnitude above what a "normal" person finds an enjoyable time? And I'm no slouch when it comes to FPS difficulty. Back in the day, I played Doom on Nightmare frequently. But the harder settings on L4D2 blow that out of the water. There's just no chance. This is also all exacerbated by the strange fact that the bots have gotten dumber since the last game. They're slower to pick up people who get knocked down (especially if that downed character is a human player), they're more likely to get separated, and they aren't as alert to the presence of zombies or as accurate in shooting them as they were in the first game... at least it seemed such to me.

The Left 4 Dead series is big on the "horror movie" angle... each separate campaign is a "movie," complete with movie posters, movie cliches, climaxes and credits. Well, the transition from L4D1 to 2 feels like a genre shift... from horror suspense (a la The Ring, Friday the 13th, or the Amityville Horror) to torture porn (a la the Saw franchise). It's bloodier, more visceral, more frenetic and more action oriented. Remember how the scary thing about Jaws was how you practically never SAW the shark? Well, in L4D2 they try to make up for the fact that you can see the shark by adding 700 more sharks.

Speaking of the characters, that's another gripe I have. In L4D1, the personality of the 4 survivors added a lot to the game. Louis and his "peelz" are a full fledged internet meme. People couldn't get over all the things Francis hates. Zoey practically had a full fledged (and somewhat pathetic) fan club, and Bill managed to pull off the grizzled old vietnam vet very well, even if he didn't stand out particularly. There is one shining star in L4D2, and that star is Ellis. It made me laugh every time he'd start in on a story about how he and his buddy Keith "this one time" would go and do something egregiously stupid and Keith would end up with something "over 90% of his body," only to be cut off by one of the other characters. Coach puts in a lovable big teddybear presence too, although next to Ellis, he's kind of the "Bill" of the group... he's there and in character but that character doesn't particularly stand out. Then there's the other two - Nick "the Gambler" and Rochelle the token female. Nick is practically a non-entity, not even really managing to fill the "asshole" shoes left vacant by Francis... and really, how hard is it to be an entertaining jerk these days? Rochelle is just... well let's put it this way - usually the worst thing you can say about a character in a story is that it is "one dimensional." Rochelle doesn't even seem to have that ONE dimension. She's just there. She's not funny or badass, smart or goofy, helpless or helpful, nothing. If this were a star trek movie, I have no doubt she'd have been the first red-shirt offed by the aliens. She's a cardboard standie with a gun. No personality. I miss the chemistry, the group dynamic of the survivors from the first game.

Now, even with all the above gripes - L4D2 *is* a fun game, and I will play it for many years to come. Albeit, it will be in conjunction with L4D1, because it does not adequately replace L4D1. Sure, I'll wish the first game had melee weapons, but the feel of the game is indispensable. But L4D2 is welcome to share hard drive space with it. Even after all my complaining about it, I like the added action, it's something a little different. But I'll always go back to L4D1 as well for my "dark and creepy suspense" fix. I would also be remiss if I did not extoll the virtues of L4D2's crowning achievement - the Hard Rain movie campaign. The setup is that the boat you're traveling on needs fuel, and you have to go on land and into town to get the diesel, then backtrack to where the boat dropped you to get picked up again... the problem is, just as you get to the fuel...a hurricane hits, adding a new wrinkle - the wind and rain that whips debris around you and periodically makes the aforementioned visibility range shrink to near useless dimensions. It really adds to the tension and challenge, but in a good way - through a clever game mechanic, not through "even more of the same."

Verdict: B+. And that's the word from Bandit Camp.


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